Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Friday, August 29, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (67)

Floating… The heat… A voice swam across to him, through the heavy jelly air… His limbs felt weak… Leaden… And the heat… The voice washed over him again, on a wave that seemed to wobble… Message garbled… Nnnnaaa… The heat, the constant heat… The wave came again… Nnnnaaak… His eyelids felt swollen… Heavy… Nnnnaaak…“

’Nak? ’Nak?” Detective Adi placed a hand on the boy’s arm. “’Nak? You OK?” The kid felt impossibly hot to the touch. On fire, almost. “Come on, kid. You’ve got to pull through. For Uncle Adi – alright?” Dear God, don’t let him die, he thought. Please. Adi was worried. What the hell have I started? he cursed himself. Why didn’t I think about the danger I was putting people in? Anything could’ve happened in that restaurant. Anything.

Ooooooo… Kay? The words began coming through a little clearer… More substantial, somehow… The heat… The damned heat… Like a furnace…

“Aah… Panas…” Hot. “’Bu? I think he’s coming round,” Adi called across to a nearby nurse. “Is there anything you can do to bring his temperature down? It must be hell for him.” “He’s having an adverse reaction to his transfusion. There’s not a lot we can do, ’Pak, I’m afraid.” The woman moved off to fetch another wet towel from the fridge. “’Nak? Can you hear me?” Adi continued to quiz. Returning, the nurse replaced the towel that lay across the boy’s brow. “Has anyone been to see him?” the Detective now asked her. “Parents? Relatives?” “No-one,” replied the nurse. “As a matter of fact, nobody seems to know anything about him, except that his name’s Anath and he came to Jakarta a few years ago. According to the people who brought him in, that is.” “Who were they?” “I don’t know. There’s a couple of them out there in reception, waiting.” Adi glanced in the direction of the doors through which he had earlier come. “By the way, ’Pak,” the woman continued, “what happened to you? You look like you need some treatment yourself.” “All in a day’s work for a busy Detective,” Adi quipped. But his heart was not really in the cheeky grin he then attempted. Patting the boy’s arm, he turned to leave. “Take good care of him, please,” he said, moving away.

Outside, the receptionist pointed across the lobby, to a couple propped against each other, like bookends. Although he would feel a little guilty about rousing them, Adi needed information. “’Pak? Permisi, ’Pak.” Excuse me. His prodding woke the man with a start, while the woman next to him almost fell off her stool, in fright. “Is he dead?” she blurted, hints of fear and panic conveyed in the texture of her voice. “No, no, no,” Adi soothed. “The boy’s got a fever, that’s all. He’s gonna pull through, don’t worry.” But the Detective was far less certain than he was trying to sound. Addressing the man, he went on: “How do you know him?” “He’s the kid that tends the newspaper stand. Got shot, believe it or not. Ditembak.” “Do you know his parents? Where he lives?” “He lives in the area. But I’ve never seen him with anyone, and he’s never spoken about his parents.” Adi turned to the woman. “’Bu?” “I heard he’s got no parents. He’s an or–” “Orphan?” the Detective cut in. “Yes.” Poor kid, thought Adi. He didn’t deserve this. “Look, I’m a Police Detective,” he said, reaching into a pocket. The couple were visibly concerned about what he was about to pull from it. “Relax, ’Bu, relax,” he continued, now holding out a calling card. “This is my number. I’d like to try and help the poor kid. If there’s anything you think of that you feel might be useful, make sure you let me know.” “OK, ’Pak Detective,” replied the man, warily accepting the card.

Straightening himself up, Detective Adi nodded his thanks before moving off, in the direction of the exit. There was much he wanted to learn about this boy whose name, apparently, was Anath. And much he wanted to do to make amends for the suffering he had caused.

posted by Kirk at 11:57 pm  

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (47)

“There’s some kind of problem,” the voice on the other end of the line informed him, gravely. “They found some paperwork on the body. It seems that it may identify some of the gang. And you, I’m afraid.” The news from his man on the ground in Qinzhou was exactly what Din had dreaded. His flight from the grisly scene that had unfolded at the quayside, his mistake of not cleaning up properly, was now returning to haunt him. He cursed the fact that he had succumbed to panic, when the composure of a professional killer had instead been required. Din reflected that when the moment had come, back there in the Marina, his nerve – unusually – had failed him. Am I beginning to lose it? he wondered. Why didn’t I dispose of the body? What was now troubling him most was that a link to Guilin, and the disappearance of the guimei, might be established. I need to move fast, he began rousing himself. Act now, before that happens. For Din was in no doubt that the members of the kidnap gang would crack at the first sign of danger. Would somehow contrive to invite attention to themselves, signalling their guilt. And worse still, their link to him. Furthermore, he knew that the penalty for abduction – particularly that of a western child – was death. An invisible, silent death in a lonely place, following some particularly nasty form of torture at the hands of the PLA.

“I need you to find out exactly what they know. Urgently!” he barked into the receiver. “And while you’re doing that, see how much it’ll take for them to close the case without a full investigation. Tactfully!” Din was now thinking on his feet. “Understood,” came the voice from Qinzhou. “I’ll call again later, when I have further news.” “Get on with it. Fast!

Din dialled again, to his former protégé this time. Whilst he knew it would be difficult to conceal the setback that had occurred, the call would have to be made nonetheless. Nguyen Tran, the man with the money, was expecting nothing less. Din’s concern was that his accomplice would attempt to use this adverse development as an excuse to stall the final payout: there was, after all, no honour among thieves – even when they had a history of mutual cooperation and respect. As he mulled over what to say, Nguyen’s voice came on the line, startling him a little. “Hello?” “It’s m-me. Din.” “Cam. You OK? What news?” “All’s quiet. Relax. My man has called and will call again tonight. He’s very thorough.” “What did he say?” “Er… he said, er… that nothing much is happening. There’s no real news.” “Nothing? Nothing at all? Din – what the fuck is this guy up to? Are you sure about him? Sure we can trust him?” “Yeah, of course. Like I said – don’t worry.” “But surely something’s been said about the slaying of the Customs pig? It must be all over the papers by now. This wasn’t some fucking low-life, Cam – it was a fucking party official!” “Well–” “Word must’ve been put out on the street about who they think did it, no?” Din was beginning to sweat. “Well, he just said it’s all quiet. That’s all.” “Cam. We need more than that from this fucking shrimp-head you’ve got on the ground there. Make sure he understands that. Or I’ll go there myself and fuck him over! Understood?” “OK, OK. Calm down, my friend. Like I said, he’s calling again tonight. I’ll call you as soon as–” “The minute you hear from him.” “Sure. And, er… how about the money?” Din bit his lower lip. “Cam. The merchandise is only just being delivered, remember? The customer’s not going to transfer the balance until he’s tried it out and found that it meets with his satisfaction, is he now?”

Shit, thought Din. I knew it. I hope he’s not going to try and cheat me. ’Cause if he does… Replacing the telephone in its cradle, he paused for a moment’s reflection. And now his earlier doubt began to nag at him again: do I still have it in me? Shrugging it off with a shake of his head, he then began packing an overnight bag for the next phase of the mission. The journey to Guilin…

In the filthy changing room to the rear of the car rental pound, the old woman removed her apron and hung it by its strings on a rusty nail jutting out from a wall. Routinely, she checked the pockets of the grubby garment, which her relief would soon be adorning. Having reunited herself with the tooth that nestled inside, she rolled it around in her fingers once more, puzzling as to why it had been left behind. “Hey! What’re you doing in there? Why are you taking so long?” her boss abruptly yelled at her, from outside. Slut, he added, under his breath. Moments later, she stood before the counter in his office in order to collect her days’ pay. “Here.” The man threw a few notes on to the counter. Counting them out, the woman noted that the payment came up short. “Not enough,” she pleaded. “You give forty, not thirty.” “Sorry – business not so good right now. Take it or leave it, hag.” “You dog shit! You fuck!” she screamed at him. “I not come back this shithole!” In the heat of the moment, she threw the object in her hand at his head, the shiny white tooth flying harmlessly past before bouncing off a wall and, by sheer fluke, coming to rest in a plastic container full of keys. “Fuck you!” the man shouted. “You come here again and I’ll wash your hair in the fucking toilet!”

posted by Kirk at 11:59 pm  

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (66)

The Jaguar’s tyres scrunched on gravel as ’Pak Bambang swept up the manicured drive, coming to a halt directly outside the golf club’s entrance. Gleefully snatching its keys, the valet slid into the luxury car’s plush interior before pulling smoothly away in the direction of the parking lot. “Selamat sore, ’Pak.Good afternoon, the pretty receptionist greeted him. She was standing beside the bag drop counter, waiting patiently for the afternoon golfers to arrive. “Your son’s already here. Ganteng sekali, ya?” “Yes, he’s good looking all right,” ’Pak Bambang replied, “like his father once was…” But although he tried to convey a little cheer in response to her playful banter, his mood was anything but sanguine. “Not playing today?” the girl continued. “No – the weather.” Putting on a difficult smile, the old man looked skyward. His heart felt leaden, like the clouds, and apprehension was eating away at his insides.

Saying nothing more, he walked slowly through the wide and open space of the reception area, where the warm breeze reminded him, for some reason, of his youth – of a time when there was more time; an infinite amount, it seemed. He wondered if it would keep on accelerating, whether death was rushing towards him, in ever quickening strides. But his doleful reverie was interrupted as he saw his son rising from his seat at a nearby table. He was in their usual spot, a quiet corner where they often held their tête-à-têtes, commonly discussing business issues, but occasionally taking on more difficult subjects. None more difficult than this, ’Pak Bambang now thought to himself, approaching.

Papa! Hi! Apa kabar?How’s it going? “Everything OK with you? You had me worried there, on the phone. Thought something was up, but you’re looking great!” Daman smiled, relieved to note that from his appearance at least, his father seemed fine. “Sit down, son,” replied ’Pak Bambang, laying a hand on his boy’s arm. Instinctively, he took a deep breath, aware that his news would now be even harder to convey. Sensing the sudden presence of a waiter, who had appeared soundlessly at his side, he turned to address him: “Two large cognacs, please. Your finest. Oh – and two cigars. The usual ones.” “’Pak,” the waiter simply nodded, obediently. But the nature of his order had surprised Daman: “Ayah? Something is wrong. You don’t normally drink in the afternoon. What is it? What’s up?” “Just a moment, son,” ’Pak Bambang appealed. “Let’s drink a toast and then I’ll tell all. I’m feeling a bit melancholy today, and I want to shake it off.” He smiled thinly, while his son began to fidget nervously in his seat.

Soon the waiter returned and, with a flourish perfected over many years, swirled the cognac in the glasses before lowering them so that they came to rest silently on top of the table’s surface, the bronze-coloured liquid still swishing around inside. In the quiet that returned as he once again disappeared to fetch the cigars, the old man raised his glass. “To your future, son.” Daman chinked his against his father’s, while a quizzical expression formed on his face. “My future?” ’Pak Bambang knew that the moment had finally come; that he could put off his revelation no longer. “Son, you’re going to have to promise me that you’ll take what I’m about to say like the man I know you are,” he began, solemnly. Fearing the worst, a knot had already begun forming in Daman’s stomach. “Ayah?” “Look, we’re all aware of our own mortality – that someday we must die, like it or not,” his father continued. “Well, I’ve just had my date confirmed.” There was a brief pause while he gauged his son’s reaction, before going on: “I’m terminally ill, son. Cancer. The big ‘C’.” He paused again, searching into Daman’s eyes, where he met with instant grief, and confusion. “I’m sorry, son. There’s just no other way to say it.” “Oh God, no… please? Dear God…” Daman buried his face in his hands. It seemed for a moment that he would break down completely. Pointing a gentle finger of instruction at him, just as he always had whenever there was a difference of opinion between them, the old man quietly counselled his boy. “Listen, Daman,” he whispered. “That won’t help. Your tears are the last thing I want to see. I need you to be strong, if nothing else than for your mother’s sake.” Daman looked up, the tears welling in his eyes. “No – she doesn’t know,” his father confirmed. “And I want you to be there, when I tell her. Be strong for her. She’s going to need a lot of comforting, I expect.”

’Pak Bambang lifted his glass once more and raised it towards his son, before taking a large gulp of the cognac. He winced as the burn seared his throat, his eyes watering while he stifled a cough. He knew he could not afford to begin hacking up blood, here in the club, in front of his son. Daman played with his glass, meanwhile, spinning it in his fingers while his mind, too, whirred. My poor ayah… Why him? Why not some heartless criminal, rather than a good man like Papa? Why? “Drink… son…” his father spluttered. “How long?” Daman said quietly, looking not at his father, but down at the wooden tabletop, and beyond. To which, raising his glass once more, the old man would only reply: “The future.” Daman slowly began shaking his head. He was about to say something, when, having regained his composure, ’Pak Bambang cut him off. “Now, as if that isn’t enough, I’ve some more bad news – and something much more important, in fact.”

posted by Kirk at 11:26 pm  

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (46)

“Plums! Get me some Panadol, would you darling?” Bazza called out. Reflected off the crystal waters of the bay, the brilliant sunlight appeared to have triggered a migraine, slightly distorting his vision while stabbing excruciating shards of pain into his temple and around the orbits of his eyes. But the erstwhile reggae star was still hungry for more images of the stunning, monolithic rocks that jutted up from the seabed, and continued to scan them greedily through his top-of-the-range Leicas. Like giant pricks, he surmised, reflecting on the extraordinary formations. Rock cocks, then. Hey – great title for a song! Must start working on it… After–

And it was then that he saw, far on the horizon, the tiny motor launch emerging through a gap between two of the giant boulders, a vision that sent his coffee-coloured body into excited convulsions. Quivering, he sped along the deck like a possessed puppy, almost knocking Plums over in the process. “Oi! Watch out, will ya?” Spinning deftly out of the way at the very last moment, the faithful valet somehow managed to keep both the pills and the glass of Dom Perignon from sliding off the silver tray he was carrying, waiter-like. “Sorry, Plums. And thank you, darling,” Bazza said, panting, as he finally came to a halt. Washing down the three white tablets with an equal number of large gulps from the champagne flute, he began to gush, giddily. “She’s here, Plums. Look. She’s coming!” Half-reluctantly, Plums took the binoculars that were being held out towards him, before feigning to search for the launch. “Not that way, silly! Over there!” Bazza yelled, gesticulating animatedly. “Look, stupid!” Evidently cross, Plums threw his boss a glare as he span extravagantly to face the direction indicated. “Oh, I do hope you’re not going to get all pissy, and jealous, like before,” chided Bazza, objecting to his manservant’s petulant display. “Because quite frankly, Plums, I can’t stand it when you behave like that.” The throbbing in his head was worsening by the second. Cruelly, it seemed as though the day was going to be spoiled, after all. It’s just not fair, Bazza thought, sulkily.

With a highly affected flick of his head, Plums suddenly turned on his heels and made to retreat below decks. Having seen it all before, Bazza was almost willing to let him go but, catching an arm, he pulled him up at the last moment, to begin restoring the harmony that commonly prevailed aboard the Glory. “Plums. Darling. Look, I’m sorry, OK. It’s just that I’m so… well… excited. Come on, we shouldn’t be arguing on a day like this. In a place like this. I mean – look around you, Plums. It’s like God created this place as a work of art. It’s so… so spiritual. And now she’s coming, too. Our beautiful little prize.”

But Plums was unsure. There was considerable doubt in his mind in relation to his boss’s decision to abandon his predilection for Asians, switching his attention instead to a Western kid. This was not to be one of the usual types of urchin that would be delivered to them, like takeaway food, from the streets of Phnom Penh, or Hanoi, after all. Not one of the unfortunates to whom Bazza would, in the form of sustenance, give as much as he would take from them in pleasure. No: this one had parents. Real people. And she went to school. It simply did not seem right. “B-Boss–” he began to stutter. But Bazza understood well the expression that had formed on his accomplice’s face, and knew what was coming. Cutting him off, he counselled: “Plums. Darling. I know what you’re thinking. But it’ll be all right, I assure you. Now, I’m going to have a lie-down. I’ve got a splitting headache and I need to be in the dark for a while. You take care of the little one until I feel better, OK? Make her feel comfortable. Play with her. You know what to do…”

And in this moment it would have been difficult for any casual observer to believe in the existence of God, for surely He would have sent a lightning bolt fizzing down towards the vessel and straight through Bazza’s callous heart, scorching Plums along the way.

posted by Kirk at 11:58 pm  

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (65)

Ketu’s cup rattled loudly in the porcelain saucer as he set it down, a little clumsily. Inwardly, he chastised himself – he had always been ham-fisted, but right now the distraction caused by his inelegant bungling of the crockery was distinctly unwelcome. He knew that the matter he intended raising with the Lurah would require delicate handling and was keen to stage an overt display of obeisance towards the official. The man was, after all, the final arbiter of all matters arising within the kampung’s boundaries, and it was vital to gain his support. In short, he held the key to the financial assistance the boy needed. Breathing deeply as the silence at last fell, Ketu sensed the moment had come to explain the purpose of his visit. “Once again, ’Pak, thank you for sparing the time to see me,” he began. “Ma’af sekali. Like I said, I’m so very sorry to trouble you on a Sunday, ’Pak. But I’m sure you must’ve heard what happened outside Sate Blora this afternoon?” Ketu would have been surprised – amazed, even – to learn, however, that this was in fact the first the Lurah had heard of the incident. Cocooned in his comfortable – almost stately – official residence, he had instead been enjoying the serenity of a quiet afternoon’s Koranic study, blissfully unaware that, elsewhere within his jurisdiction, bedlam had just broken out. And when some fellow he did not recognise had unexpectedly turned up to seek an audience, he had not had the faintest idea of what was to come. Now embarrassed by his apparent ignorance, the Lurah chose to nod sagely, as if he were fully aware of the situation and had already been weighing up what to do about it. Falling for this ploy, Ketu’s confidence began to rise; his spirits lifting somewhat. It appeared that his objective would be easier to achieve than he had earlier imagined. “We managed to get the boy to hospital fairly quickly,” he recounted, excitedly. “Commandeered a mikrolet.” “Boy? What boy?” the Lurah now asked – his question something of a confession. “But I thought you said… I mean I thought you… knew?” Ketu quizzed, now feeling a little crestfallen. What’s going on here? he thought to himself, trying to read the man of office. “Oh look, never mind. Just get on with it, would you, my friend?” insisted the Lurah. “It is a Sunday afternoon, as you say.” And now it was clear to Ketu that he would, after all, be facing an uphill struggle. That the Lurah’s earlier body language had been somewhat disingenuous. “It was the boy that runs the newsstand – Anath’s his name,” he continued, beginning his description of events. “He was hit in the shoulder. By a stray bullet. There was a figh–” “So you took him to hospital in a mikrolet,” the Lurah cut in, wishing to truncate what for him was already becoming a rather dreary monologue. “That was good work – well done.” A slight sneer – something he had carried with him all his life – had formed around his nose. But Ketu pushed on, eager once again, hoping to convert this mild but apparent commendation into something more substantial.

“The thing is, ’Pak, we’re fairly sure the kid’s got very little in the way of savings. He’s going to have a sizeable bill to foot when he’s fit enough to be discharged. Some of us even had to cobble the money together to get him admitted in the first place.” Ketu thrust out the paper from the hospital receptionist’s clipboard, upon which his notes of the individual contributions were scribbled. Reluctantly, he withdrew it just as quickly, disappointed at the Lurah’s evident lack of interest. “I’ve promised to try and get some more money to the hospital later today, and then there are bound to be other costs… like reimbursing the mikrolet’s crew for effectively stealing their livelihood for a day… er, medicines the boy will need during his recovery… and so on…” he continued, falteringly. “A good analysis. As I’ve said: well done, my friend. Evidently, it was a very neighbourly deed, what you and your fellow kampung folk did. Now, if that’ll be all, I’ve got a number of duties to attend to this afternoon,” the Lurah responded, in an attempt to conclude the interview. “Well, no. That isn’t all,” Ketu insisted. “Look – without putting too fine a point on it, ’Pak, I thought you might be able to come to the boy’s aid. You know: use some of the official funds. From the kampung kitty. He is one of us, after all – pays his monthly subscriptions like the rest of us.” “But is he one of us, this… this, what’s his name – Anath? Really? I’m not so sure, you know. If it’s the boy I’m thinking of, I understood that he was transitory – just passing through on his way to somewhere else. He’s an orphan, isn’t he? A wanderer. No roots.” “Well, ’Pak, I wouldn’t describe him that way at all. Not at all.” The temperature in the Lurah’s rather well appointed residence was finally beginning to rise. “See – he’s lived here, in the same small lodgings, for almost five years now.” Ketu’s breathing was becoming shallower, his chest heaving as he felt a sense of indignation welling up inside him. “We consider him a well-liked member of our local community. Someone we feel confident that we ourselves could call upon, in times of need. And someone who also provides a useful service.” “We? Who’s we?” Ketu now knew that the Lurah was someone with whom he would never be able to see eye to eye. For it was clear that the man was far more interested in his own well being than he was in tending to his flock. Barely able to conceal his growing anger, he embarked upon a final push to secure the Lurah’s sympathy and, more importantly, his commitment to release funds. “Look, ’Pak Lurah – sir – can’t you see that I’m appealing directly to you because I can think of no other way to help the poor kid? He was sitting there, minding his own business, when someone shot him. And he deserves our help,” he asserted. “I’m sure your books would confirm we have sufficient money in the coffers to assist, even if it’s in the form of a loan, perhaps. Something he can repay over time. Now: what do you say?” “Well, that’s exactly my point, isn’t it, my friend?” the Lurah sneered in response. “What if I allow him access to community funds and then he doesn’t hang around long enough to pay it back? What would people think of that, eh? And anyway, shouldn’t the person who shot him pay for his treatment? Why don’t you go and ask him?

But Ketu had already shown his back to the so-called man of office, and was walking out through the door, exiting the residence and its surrounding compound as quickly as he could. For whilst he was a man who had not been blessed with an intellect capable of delivering academic qualification – his parents too poor in any event to provide him with a formal education – he was intelligent enough, nonetheless, to realise that flaring up any further under such circumstances would hardly help Anath’s cause. A highly principled man, Ketu would not, however, be letting the Lurah sweep the issue conveniently under the carpet. No.

Oh, no. The boy will be getting every bit of assistance he needs, Ketu now determined, mumbling a few profanities under his breath. I’ll make damn sure of that.

posted by Kirk at 11:31 pm  

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (45)

There was no mirth in Blake’s demeanour as he waited his turn in the Immigration queue, after arriving at Liangjiang airport. Indeed, he had the appearance of someone who was in the mood to kill. Finally gaining the opportunity to approach the counter, the glare he threw at the uniformed officer would have rankled in many parts of the world, perhaps even arousing suspicion. But here in Guilin, the young Chinese official was mercifully unable to read his posturing. Stamping Blake’s passport with a healthy dose of indifference, he simply called the next person forward.

In fact, the surliness of Blake’s expression was more the result of his desperate frustration than a hatred of bureaucracy, or even the Chinese. His stomach felt as if a horse had kicked it – he wanted to rip out his insides as punishment for the lack of attention he had paid his daughter in recent months. What the fuck did I think I was doing? he interrogated himself. I should have spent so much more time with her. Read to her. Shown more of an interest. His heart sank as he thought of Sophie’s white-blonde ringlets jigging about as she played. And then the anger returned as once again he pictured her, miserable and lonely in her plight. Calling out for her Mummy in whatever dark place she was being kept. Over and over, he chastised himself for his failings. What was I doing, instead of being a proper father? Gallivanting around with some Chinese bird… Why wasn’t I there to stop this happening? However illogical it seemed, Blake still held on to the belief that there was some way he could have prevented his daughter from being snatched.

Blake’s thoughts then switched to the other woman in his life, this distraction that had swept in from nowhere and demanded entry. An inviolable, evergreen visa to his soul. But he knew in this instant that Elle was not just some floozy who had ambushed him in order to steal him away from his family. No: the emotion she had displayed back at Chek Lap Kok was real, he was sure of that. With such a hole at the heart of the relationship he shared with Kate, Adam Blake had fallen helplessly in love. Elle gave out freely the warmth he craved, rescuing him from the frozen desert his marriage had become. Elle… Elle… I need you, babe… More than ever… More than you can know… he confessed, inwardly.

“Taxi, Mister!” “Mister!” “Taxi!” Suddenly, the squawking of a group of drivers noisily touting for business jolted him from his reverie. There seemed to be no shortage of them, and a minor scuffle broke out as at last he acknowledged their presence, indicating that he would indeed be needing a ride. Blake settled for the only one whose appearance did not resemble that of a beggar. “Take me to a hotel. Any one, I don’t care,” he instructed, his tone unnecessarily harsh. Around an hour later, he found himself checking into the Xiu Xiang Seven Star Hotel, a modest but clean three star establishment in the city centre – accommodation that was perfectly suited to his needs, therefore. Blake was not expecting to spend much time in his room, after all. Somewhat surprisingly, he now began to feel positive – it was the best he had felt, in fact, since the shock of the morning’s news had buried him in a trough of anxiety. At least I have acted, he thought, gazing somewhere off into the distance. Done something about it.

And now I’m going to find my daughter.

Blake nodded silently, pursing his lips before exhaling, slowly. Although he still felt somewhat numb, the earlier fuzziness in his head was beginning to clear. Opening a few drawers and cupboards to discover what amenities the Xiu Xiang had to offer, he then came across a poorly stocked minibar. It occurred to him that for the first time in months, he had not imbibed a drop of alcohol so far that day. Lying back into the cushions on his bed, he then vowed not to take another hard drink until Sophie was found – his little girl back under the care and custody of her rightful guardians. Or guardian? he now thought, for whatever reason. In the singular, that is? But there was not enough time to embellish upon this sudden notion, before he drifted off into a deep sleep. And it was not until an hour or so later that he woke with a start, snatching up the phone from his bedside cabinet in order to dial the hotel operator. “Get me the number of the police station. Fast!” he barked…

Somewhere in the centre of Qinzhou, an old woman was meanwhile vacuuming the interior of a black Toyota Alphard that had been returned to her boss’s rental pound that morning. As she leant inside, she noticed something unusual lying on the carpet in the footwell of what was a distinctly malodorous rear passenger compartment. Something small and white, having the appearance of enamel. For a moment, she thought of simply hoovering it up, but her curiosity suddenly got the better of her and, having changed her mind, she reached down to pick it up. Drawing it up close to her face she twiddled between her thumb and index finger what by now she had identified as a child’s milk tooth. Why would someone leave such a thing behind? she wondered. It certainly seemed a rather uncaring thing to do, even to a simple labourer. Callous, even. Slipping it into the large pocket of her apron, she muttered something under her breath before continuing on with her work.

posted by Kirk at 11:52 pm  

Friday, August 15, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (64)

Too fast. Things are happening too fast, thought ’Pak Bambang. His head whirred in contemplation of the day’s events so far. It was as if time had deliberately sped up, mocking his inability to stretch out what little of it he had left. Absently stroking his chin with a hand, he stared vacantly into space for a while, deciding eventually that there was no option but to call his son. It was finally time for the discussion he knew he should have prompted some time before, upon first discovering that he was terminally ill. Picking up the telephone, he dialled the number he knew by heart. After a few rings, his daughter-in-law could be heard on the line. “Assalamu’alaikum.” Her voice, as ever, seemed to ooze a curious mix of culture and innocence together. The woman’s evident good nature began to point a finger at ’Pak Bambang, instilling within him a sense of remorse. She’s always been there for my boy. Stood beside him through thick and thin. And yet I’m about to betray her, he admitted, inwardly. But the old man knew that he had to press ahead, anyway. Whatever the consequences. “Wa’alaikumsalam,” he managed to reply. “Hello, my sweet. Is Daman there?” he then added, swallowing. “Yes of course, Ayah. I’ll get him right away.” She addressed him as if he were her own father, with the blind obedience her upbringing had taught her. “Papa? What’s up?” Now it was his boy on the line. My son. My poor son. All those years… ’Pak Bambang could barely conceal the sudden wave of emotion that swept over him. Almost choking on the words, he made the arrangements that he hoped would lead to his release from the cage of guilt he felt trapped within. The rendezvous that would facilitate his confession, and in some way make amends for all the heartbreak he had caused: “Daman… ’Nak… Could we… meet? For a chat? There’s a couple of things I… I need to discuss. How about the golf club…? Let’s say an hour from now?” “Sure – but we’re coming round to the house tonight, remember? Is everything OK?” “Of course. Of course it is, son. Just… just meet me there.” “OK. See you at the club at… three-thirty,” Daman concluded, checking his watch. He had tried to remain positive but, despite his upbeat response, there was a quizzical look on his face as he then rang off. “Bye.” At the other end of the line, ’Pak Bambang put the receiver gently back into its cradle and tried to compose himself. Mentally, he began rehearsing exactly what it was he was going to say…

Detective Adi was not altogether sure what he could offer by way of assistance, but he sensed there had to be something he could do to make up for the part he had played in the boy’s misfortune. He kicked himself for not considering the poor kid’s fate sooner. Bringing his car to a halt, this time a few blocks before reaching Sate Blora, he continued on foot through the drizzle, his shirt becoming soaked through by the time he reached the scene of his earlier ordeal.

Despite the rain, there was still a sizeable crowd of onlookers – street-kids mainly, many of whom stood staring, fascinated, at the blood that stained the earth where Anath fell. The excitement generated by the day’s surprise events was tinged with fear, the hair bristling on their necks as if subjected to static shock. As Adi approached, he saw that some of them were replaying the action, their movements as much a product of their fertile imaginations as mimicking what they had witnessed. Some toted their fingers around like guns – bang! – while others wrestled in slow motion. Each re-enactment seemed to add a new chapter to the story, making it more elaborate than the last. Walking up to a group of them, Adi reached into a jacket pocket for a pack of Gudang Garam that he kept for just such occasions. “Ayo! Boys! Mau rokok?Cigarette? The waifs rushed to gather round him, failing in the hubbub to spot the obvious signs of battle that scarred his face. Signs that, were they to pause for thought, might suggest a link to the events of a few hours before. “What happened here?” he asked them, feigning ignorance. Adi’s simple question produced a babble of rapid storytelling, a half-dozen voices striking up at once, eager to tell their tales. He handed out the kretek, which they tucked away into pockets or lodged behind ears, not perhaps to smoke, but instead to later sell.

“So – where did they take the boy? Ke mana?” continued the Detective, once a relative calm had returned. “Dunno,” replied one, his comment echoed by another. “Yeah – dunno.” The rest either shook their heads or stared back at him, blankly. Quiet now, the street urchins looked guiltily at one another, realising they had given the matter no thought. Suddenly, just to their rear, a city mikrolet lurched to a juddering halt, its inexperienced driver stalling the engine at the very last moment. A series of weary-looking passengers began to disembark, their clothes bloodstained to varying degrees. The first of them, a well-built man, called out to the others before disappearing purposefully off into the distance. “It’s OK. Thank you, boys,” Adi finally said, patting one of them on the head before moving off in the direction of the bus.

The parting pleasantries of the passengers could be overheard as he approached one, a large woman who appeared completely fatigued. “Did you see what happened to the boy?” he asked. Viewing him with obvious disinterest, the woman kept her response as brief as she could. “We took him to Rumah Sakit Medika,” she half-whispered. “The hospital on the outskirts of town? Down the main highway?” Adi queried. The woman nodded. “Is he still there?” She nodded again. “Which ward?” “Darurat. Casualty, of course.” Thanking her, the young Detective moved smartly away, back in the direction of his parked Toyota, breaking into a trot as he went. A curious look momentarily formed across the woman’s face, before she dismissed the thought that had begun to form in her mind, and turned to walk in the direction of her nearby home, where she would take some well-earned rest.

posted by Kirk at 11:39 pm  

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (44)

Harold Cheeseman had been attending to the increasingly sordid needs of his boss for decades, ever since the chance encounter that brought them together on the slippery wet streets of North West London. Their early years together had been spent in a carefree manner – Bazza’s money and a shared willingness to ignore the warning signs conspiring to insulate them from the harsh realities that were encroaching upon a promiscuous world. But Bazza’s terror at the rapid demise of rock legend Freddie Mercury soon led him to completely denounce penetrative sex and the ‘exchange of fluids’ with anyone, male or female. Except, that is, those he knew were extremely unlikely to be carrying the AIDS virus or its host, HIV.

Those he subsequently craved were mostly virgins, then.

As young and inexperienced as possible.

Kids, in other words.

Paedophilia was not some sickness that had suddenly hatched one day, after lying dormant in Bazza’s psyche. It was something he had grown into through circumstance: a deliberate choice, in fact. And once he had begun acting upon his new inclination, the fascination it held for him – the sheer excitement – was something quite unexpected. So the boys and girls from his old orphanage who would regularly visit Uncle Barry’s for a special day out got more than just cake and ice cream. Even traditional games such as Blind Man’s Buff, Hide and Seek, and Sardines took on sinister new meanings within the context of the kids’ parties he threw at his upmarket London mews house. These were heady days for the fading pop star, restoring his flagging interest in what he liked to term his joie de vivre. Seeing his boss’s rejuvenation, even Plums had gone along with it, quietly. But once the rumours of Bazza’s newfound proclivity then began to be whispered among the beautiful people of the London club scene, he knew it would soon be time to make good his escape before wider exposure, conviction and a nasty, potentially lethal jail term finally caught up with him. And so, eventually, Bazza left Blighty for good, becoming in the process what was one of Britain’s first paedo-exiles.

Flush with cash following the unparalleled success of his number one single ‘Tight Fittin’, the chorus of which – “Chocolate starfish/Black or white/Bazza like it fittin’ tight” – had both captivated and flown straight over the heads of the British public for a full ten weeks one hot and giddy summer, he chose like many of his peers to flee to less rigid jurisdictions. In his case first Spain, then Thailand, Cambodia and, finally, as he was hounded from a succession of preferred residential locales, Vietnam. Bazza was fortunate that Plums was prepared to throw in his lot with him, devoting his life to the erstwhile star, at great personal sacrifice. For Plums was the rock to which Bazza’s lifeline was tethered.

A little unimaginative, Plums had no idea why his boss had given him this particular nickname – even when, cupping the witless valet’s testicles in a hand, Bazza would provide him with the most obvious of clues. But despite his somewhat challenged intellect there was one, breakthrough suggestion Plums had once made to his boss that had completely floored Bazza with its simple genius. Apropos of nothing, as they sat in doleful contemplation of their latest deportation, he had just blurted it out: “D’ya ’member when we was back in Marbella, boss?” He had pronounced the place name with the full force of two ‘els’, as opposed to the required ‘y’ sound. “Yeah, so what?” Bazza had answered sulkily, feeling a little down on his luck. “Well, one of your mates – who was it? Pete Collymore, Noose’s drummer, I fink. ’Ad a boat, didn’t ’e? Big’un. Lived on it.”

And there it was. A stupendously crafty idea, delivered with numbing simplicity – a triumph, in fact, for Plums’ cockney logic: why bother living around people – voyeurs who snooped around all day watching what you were doing – when you could live on a boat? Live on a boat. Live on a boat! That’s it! Live on a fucking boat! And a fucking huge one, at that! the former reggae legend had instantly surmised. Why be a goldfish in a bowl, when you could be a dolphin in the sea? he added, mentally, congratulating himself on his cleverness. Yes, Bazza liked the reasoning all right. “Shit on sticks, Plums! I think you’ve gone and done it again, darling!” he had exclaimed. And almost immediately, he began writing a new song about it. “’Cause I like dolphins, Plums,” he affirmed, gleefully hugging his manservant. “They’re my favourite fish,” he then concluded, with theatrical solemnity.

posted by Kirk at 11:23 pm  

Friday, August 8, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (63)

Adi woke with a start. He had been asleep for over an hour, and now the skin of his palms bore the resemblance of prunes. Suddenly remembering the girl, he called out. “Lulu? Sayang?” Nothing. Gripping the sides of the bathtub he pushed himself slowly up, wincing with every movement of his battered body. Shit! The young Detective had been bruised before, but could not remember another occasion when he felt this sore, in so many places. Groaning audibly, he made one final push to stand, gritting his teeth while stepping out to lunge for a towel on the rack. The stoop in his frame suggested his back belonged more to an octogenarian than a man in his physical prime, and he needed the additional support of the rail in order to keep himself upright. Removing a hand, he struggled to wrap the soft towel around his midriff, grimacing all the while. “Lulu?” he called out once again, his voice unusually bereft of authority. “Sayangku?” But still there was no reply.

Adi shuffled across the tiles, holding on to the hand basin. The bathroom steam bellowed into the cooler air of the bedroom as he pushed open the door to peer in. Through the gloom he could see the hump beneath the sheets that indicated, to his relief, she was still there. The scene was reminiscent of that which had confronted him at the Veza Hotel, causing a sudden sense of panic to sweep over him. Please, no… he begged. Not her… Not like those… those poor bastards… Please… But on lifting the crisp white sheets, his fear was quickly allayed as he sensed her warmth. Stroking a hand across her bare back, his fingers traced down to her coccyx, and the spider legs of her tattoo. Thank God… “Nnnnnnhhh…” she moaned, her almond eyes opening into slits as she stirred from her slumber. “Baby? That… you, baby?” she slurred, sleepily. Once again he winced as he slid in beside her, limiting their physical contact to a hand he draped across her waist. In his present condition, Adi was unable to contemplate anything more than this, and although she then reached a hand behind her to fumble around in the region of his groin, he was forced to politely fend her off. “I’m sorry, babe… It’s just that I’m… I’m really hurting… All over,” he apologised, shyly. For this was far from Detective Adi’s usual style. “Nnnnnngggah,” came her reply, within which he thought he could detect a note of irritation. And it was now that he began to think about their developing relationship, in the context of what Lulu did for a living. Still does, he taunted himself. And will continue doing tomorrow, and the next day, if you don’t do something about it. “Sayang?” he began to form his inevitable question, but the beautiful prize beside him had once more fallen asleep.

Adi closed his eyes, yearning for proper rest, for some healing slumber. But his mind was now racing, taking him back to the horror of the events at Sate Blora. Of those moments when he felt he could almost smell the encroachment of death, and of the will he had had to summon, just to pull him through the ordeal, and stay alive. Once more the demons began to tease him, scolding the young Detective for his juvenile naivety. Did he really think there would be any other outcome? Fool! But there was also something else, something in the back of his mind, which kept nagging away persistently. What is it? What are you trying to tell me?

Oh, no…! Oh, God – no! Oh, shit! It had suddenly dawned on him. The boy! That poor kid… For the first time since the Captain’s shots had rang out, Adi thought of the boy who had been sitting at the newsstand, shielding himself from the rain. The pleasant kid with whom he had exchanged a nod and a sympathetic smile, before entering the restaurant.

He was hit…!

Lulu woke as Adi then abruptly rolled out of bed, his face screwed up in pain, his unsteady legs now attempting to carry him across the room to his wardrobe. He pulled open the door, which flapped back on its hinges, knocking against his side as he leant in to retrieve some clothes. “Ah… Fuck!” “What wrong, sayang?” she asked. “You make Lulu scare.” “Sorry, babe,” Adi replied, gasping as he buttoned up a shirt. The brushing of stiff cotton against his chest felt like someone was sanding away his skin. “The boy – he was hit!” “Who is boy?” “There was a young kid sitting at a newspaper stand. Sitting there, outside Sate Blora, just minding his own business. The bullet he took was meant for me. I’ve got to go and help him,” he explained, regaining, as he did, a sense of purpose. Lulu managed a wan smile, at once proud of her man, this guy for whom she now seemed to be falling. “OK, handsome boy. You find him, this boy. But don’t brave. You brave one time today already.” She watched as his back then disappeared through the apartment door, sighing before she reclined once more, to contemplate what these feelings meant. Still scared of loving, this common yet delicate flower found it difficult to convince herself that Adi was indeed different to all the many men she had known before. After a lifetime of knocks, it was hard to believe. But one thing she did not doubt was that she wanted him to return quickly – and safe. “Wait for me! I’ll be back!” Adi shouted over his shoulder, while descending the stairs. And for a fleeting moment, it seemed to Lulu that they were spiritually connected; that he could read her mind.

posted by Kirk at 9:43 pm  

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (43)

Blake’s anxiety was mounting as the Captain made the latest in what had seemed an endless series of announcements. By now, they had been stuck on the ground for over thirty minutes, the aircraft’s wheels seemingly glued to the apron, while Blake wanted action, and fast. Through a large passenger terminal window, he had earlier watched Elle’s Air France flight take off and now he, too, wanted to get airborne. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We’ve, er, now finally been given clearance for take-off and subsequent routing, er, all the way to Guilin. So we’ll be pushing back, er, very shortly. On behalf of Kowloon Airways I’d like to apologise for this, er, this delay… which as you will, er, appreciate… er, was beyond our control. Meanwhile, we’re just, er, waiting for one more passenger to board, after which we’ll be on our way. Once again, thank you for your, er… understanding.” But the Captain’s conciliatory tones did nothing to soothe Blake’s impatience and he reached up to press the call button, intending to vent his anger on whichever cabin crew member had the misfortune to offer assistance.

Within a matter of moments, a smartly uniformed young man flicked off the call button, before leaning across from where he stood in the aisle, to Blake’s window seat. “What is I can do you, sir?” he asked, in broken English. Coincidentally spotting the final passenger boarding, Blake took his opportunity to release some of the venom that had been building inside. “Why the fuck did this aircraft wait for that slit-eyed prick to board?” he said, pointing to what from his appearance was a local businessman. “We’re well past fucking take-off time.” His outburst caused a mixture of mirth, anger, and perhaps even a little fear, as passengers of varying ethnic backgrounds turned to stare at him. “I bet he’s some kind of fucking VIP, isn’t he? Fucking place,” he continued. “Sir, that language not at all appropriate,” replied the young steward, testily. “The Captain already explain we only just clearance all way to destination.” Blake fidgeted in his seat. Knowing that his assertion was not exactly rooted in solid ground, it seemed that a reasonably justified dressing-down loomed uncomfortably close. “We will on our way in just moment, sir. OK?” the young man concluded, letting him of the hook. Were it not for the circumstances, Blake might have sniggered at the way the steward then minced his way along the aisle as he moved off, huffily. “Cabin crew: set, er, doors to automatic,” said the Captain over the tannoy system.

It seemed to take an eternity for the aircraft to taxi into position at the start of the runway and when the engines finally began to roar, accelerating them along its two kilometre length, Blake remained frustrated that right now, right at this moment, he was utterly unable to do anything more proactive in order to locate his little girl. With a deep intake of breath, he deliberately steered his thoughts not to his wife, but to the woman he knew was already somewhere near the Himalayas, on her way to Paris. Elle… Elle, he sighed. I need you… Need you more than ever, right now, baby… Forcing himself to lean back into the little comfort offered by his seat, he then closed his eyes while continuing his deep breathing exercise. And whilst he accepted that she could not be beside him in body, he hoped that Elle was with him in her mind, thinking of him right now, just as he was thinking of her. Exhausted, Blake gradually fell into a deep sleep…

Nguyen Tran listened gravely to the news. The accidental killing of the Immigration official was unscripted, and something that had the potential to threaten the entire enterprise. He said nothing for a moment, thinking. “You’re sure there were no witnesses?” he finally asked, seeking further reassurance. “Absolutely,” Din replied into the receiver. “And the men you hired to do the job. They got away from the scene. Nobody was apprehended.” “Of course,” Din lied. For actually, he had no way of knowing.

Din chose to omit the news that one of the men was now sporting scratch marks down one side of his face, from just below the orbit of an eye to the corner of his mouth. Neither was he about to reveal that he had kept back five thousand dollars from the gang’s bonus payout. “What about the vessel? Was it registered?” Nguyen’s voice suddenly barked from the earpiece, quizzing him further. “Unmarked.” “Good. Well, I think all we can do is lie low for a while. See what sort of fallout there is. But from what you’re saying there is no possibility of anyone connecting the guimei kid’s disappearance with the death of this Immigration pig. I hope I can trust you, Din.” “Hey, how long have we known each other? And by the way, when am I getting my money?” Questions that Tran ignored. “Do you have someone there with his nose in the trough, as it were?” was all he said, instead. “Like I told you, don’t worry. I have a reliable man there. Someone with good connections. I’ll be getting a report on the situation tonight, tomorrow and every day after that.”

But the machine in Nguyen’s brain was still whirring, trying to cover every angle, picturing the scene in his mind. However evil his trade might be, he had turned it into a profession. And Nguyen Tran was, himself, the consummate professional. A man who prided himself on being the best. He had missed something, he was sure. He struggled again to think what. “The car!” he suddenly chirped, realising. “What about the car, Din?” “Returned it this morning, on schedule. No questions asked.” “Yes, but did you clean it thoroughly before handing it back, like I insisted?” “Yes.” “Inside, I mean?” “Of course. Don’t worry my friend.” But Din was lying again, for he had forgotten that he had promised to do this. Had specific instructions, in fact. Because if he had remembered, and then cleaned the Alphard’s interior, he would have noticed the milk tooth lying on the urine-stained mat in the rear footwell, and removed it.

posted by Kirk at 2:34 am  
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